The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda sit side by side on Sothearos Boulevard and, while they are two separate complexes, they are visited as one.
This jewel in the crown of Cambodia’s monarchy was built in the late 1860s under the reign of Norodom who wanted to move the royal family residence from Oudong to Phnom Pen. The following year the city was inaugurated as the country’s capital. (Ironically, just over a century later it became a prison for the Royal Family as captives of the Khmer Rouge).
The site has many elaborate gilded halls, all with steep tile roofs, cupolas and golden temple nagas – all proudly proclaiming prosperity! The first building you’ll visit is the Throne Hall. Four pale faces at the top represent the all-seeing King – a common motif in Khmer architecture as seen in the Bayon Temple at Angkor. You’ll notice the hall is painted predominantly in yellow and white, the symbolic colours of Buddhism and Hinduism. The enormous gold thrones are used only for coronations and otherwise the hall itself only hosts ceremonies such as the displaying of credentials by diplomats. Unfortunately many of the items once displayed here were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
Behind and to the left of this building en route to the Silver Pagoda is a curious building. This grey cast-iron structure, initially constructed in Egypt, was shipped to Cambodia in 1876 as a gift from Napoleon iii of France. Whoever designed it had failed to factor in the Cambodian climate!
By contrast, the Silver Pagoda is so called because of the floors which are covered with 5,000 blocks of silver weighing more than six tons. Though most of the area is covered in carpets, a small area near the entrance is exposed. The centrepiece is the large jade Buddha statue, known as the Emerald Buddha. Standing in front of this is a tall solid gold Buddha encrusted with over 2,000 diamonds. King Sisowath commissioned it in 1904. And then there are over 1,600 other artefacts on display, ranging from platinum cigarette boxes with emeralds the size of quail eggs to gold spittoons. Clearly this was a royal family that was unashamed in showing off its wealth!
Finally there are the elephant stables where the king once kept his white elephant. The Khmer Rouge starved it to death.
As with most palaces and temples in this region, the rule of thumb is that both men and women should cover their knees and shoulders. Ignore rumours to the contrary. So shorts and skirts should reach below the knee, and T-shirts or blouses should reach to the elbow. Failing that, you will have to buy an appropriate sarong at the ticket booth.